Some students graduating from an Iowa college or university this month will have to pay off debts that could be close to $100,000.

Other loans facing college students are far lower and a lot of students have avoided debt. But for many, taking out loans remains necessary in order to go to college, an IowaWatch College Media journalism project showed.

“I don’t wanna’ be in debt, but I made the decision to come to school and I think for most students, when they make that decision, it’s kind of already married to the decision to take students loans as well,” Nick Hodges, finishing his senior year in communication studies and writing at Coe College, said.

Hodges, 28, from Crawfordsville, Indiana, was one of several students interviewed at eight Iowa college campuses this spring for the IowaWatch project.

Brady Tobin, Cornell College

Brady Tobin, who just finished his senior year in math education at Cornell College, a private not-for-profit university, said he will leave the Mount Vernon college with a family debt of nearly $100,000.

“While I still got a lot of aid from Cornell College, as it’s a private institution and it gives a lot of scholarships out, I still did not have enough money personally to pay for it and neither did my parents,” Tobin, 22, of Erie, Colorado, said. “I come from a middle-class family home and we did not have enough money to flat-out pay for my education so we need my parents to take out some more loans in order to pay for college.”

Average debt for Cornell College graduates was $34,130 in 2017, the most recent year reported to the Iowa College Student Aid Commission.

Yearly tuition at Cornell College will be $43,550 for the 2019-20 academic year, nearly twice that of a nonresident student at Iowa’s three public universities. Tuition at the University of Northern Iowa was $8,938 for Iowa residents and $19,480 for non-residents, in the 2018-19 school year. Nearly 70 percent of UNI graduates had debt upon graduation in 2017.

Resident undergraduate tuition at Iowa State University ranged from $7,740 to $8,237, depending on the major. Nonresident tuition at ISU ran from $22,144 and to as high as $22,678, depending on the major, for the 2018-19 academic year.

Marissa Jerinnie Credit: Submitted photo

“I don’t have any rich family members that would help me, so that was the only option if I wanted to continue my school,” Marissa Jerinnie, 21 and finishing her sophomore year at ISU, said about taking out loans that she anticipates will leave her $30,000 to $40,000 in debt when she graduates.

Complete debt data for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years don’t exist yet but students graduating from not-for-profit, four-year universities in Iowa faced an average of $30,595 in student loan debt in 2017, according to the Iowa College Aid Commission.

This number is nearly as high as the median per capita income of $30,865 in Iowa in 2017, according to the Iowa Data Center.

Average debt carried by students graduating from a private, not-for-profit university in Iowa was $33,878 for the same year. The average when graduating from the University of Iowa, ISU and UNI  Northern Iowa, run by the state’s Board of Regents, was $27,313 in 2017, according to the Iowa College Aid Commission.

Credit: K. Rambo/IowaWatch chart


Student journalists working with IowaWatch interviewed students and financial aid advisers during the spring 2019 college semester for this collaboration. The journalists are:

    • K. Rambo, Iowa State University and IowaWatch intern
    • Lauren Wade, University of Iowa and IowaWatch intern
    • Molly Hunter, University of Iowa and IowaWatch intern
    • Matthew McDermott, Cornell College and IowaWatch intern
    • Lily Bohlke, Grinnell College and IowaWatch intern
    • Omar Alcorta, Buena Vista University
    • Guy Tannenbaum, Buena Vista University
    • Cooper Maahs, Buena Vista University
    • Allyssa Ertz, Buena Vista University
    • Iran Carlos, Buena Vista University
    • Tyler Brunner, Buena Vista University
    • Tanner Frost, Buena Vista University
    • Job Saunders, Buena Vista University
    • Logan Schroeder, Mount Mercy University
    • Claudia Chiappa, Coe College
    • Antonio Perez, Coe College
    • Oliden Herrera, St. Ambrose University

    Special thanks to the following journalism advisers and professionals: Andrea Frantz, Buena Vista University; Joe Sheller, Mount Mercy University; Shawn Harmsen, Coe College; David Baker KALA Radio, St. Ambrose University.

That was a decrease from the average of $27,575 in 2016.

But the average debt for students graduating from private, not-for-profit universities has increased steadily each year from 2013 through 2017, resulting in a 7 percent total increase in that time.

While tuition differed between private and public institutions in Iowa, the reasons for borrowing for college were the same at campuses where IowaWatch spoke with students: the cost was too high for students and their families to pay out of pocket.

“I didn’t have access to that large sum of money upfront, and that was the main motivator for borrowing the amount of money per semester,” Madelyn Orton, 21, of West Point, Iowa, and finishing her junior year in English and communications at Mount Mercy University, said.

Orton said she only spent money from loans on books and tuition. Still, Orton said she will have an estimated $25,000 in student loan debt upon graduation.

Orton said she did not receive any advice on managing college debt while in high school, but since has received helpful advice from financial aid advisors at Mount Mercy.

Jerinnie, of Minneapolis, grew up in a single-parent household, she said, She said ISU was one of her top choices when picking a college but paying out-of-state tuition has become so burdensome she is transferring to a school in her home state of Minnesota.

“I know if I did go to a community college or school in Minnesota, I knew I wouldn’t be in as much debt as I am right now,” Jerinnie said. “But, I don’t regret it (going to Iowa State) because I also did want to get away from home to just kind of be on my own and so it did teach me a lot.”

While the average debt on graduation at ISU was lower than the average debt on graduation at private schools in Iowa, the number still sat at $27,643, as of 2017. An IowaWatch survey of Iowa State students done with the Iowa State Daily showed anecdotally that seven of every 10 among the 136 responding had debt related to being in college.

Peyton Gries, 23, of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and graduating this month in enterprise leadership and the University of Iowa, said she has $42,300 in student loan debt.

Gries said she had to borrow to cover tuition and living expenses. Her original major, human physiology, was demanding so she put off getting a job her freshman and sophomore year to focus on school, she said. Gries worked two jobs after changing her major, which has helped her. However, “I wish that I’d been more adamant about getting a job freshman and sophomore year,” she said.

Average debt for graduating seniors was $28,405 at the U of I in 2017. In-state tuition at Iowa was $9,492 for the 2018-2019 academic year, and $31,458 for out-of-state tuition.


Joshua Cole-Brodnax, Mount Mercy University Credit: Logan Schroeder/for IowaWatch

Help from home, college grants, savings and scholarships are key to keeping college debt down. Joshua Cole-Brodnax, 22, from Rock Island, Illinois, said he graduates this month with little debt and majors in English and criminal justice from Mount Mercy University.

“The way I have it set up right now, it’s actually put me in a pretty good spot,” Cole-Brodnax said. “I don’t owe anyone any huge massive amounts of money, all my bills have been paid on time. I have been pretty blessed to have everything paid off the way I need it to.”


Kelsey Ryder, assistant director of financial literacy and counseling at the U of I, said the university takes several steps to explain how loans work. Ryder said she thinks some students don’t have a full grasp on the implications of borrowing for education.

“In general, students have to do entrance counseling before they can borrow a loan, as well as sign a master promissory note,” Ryder said, noting those are online steps. “At Iowa, we have our students, they have to actively accept their loans before a loan will disburse, so they have to click a button to view the amount, say they want that amount.

“They can reduce the loan if they want, so our students definitely should have an understanding of what they’re borrowing every year, through those steps.”

Ryder also said the U of I requires students to complete private loan counseling before they can borrow private loans.

Pamela Perry, director of financial planning and assistance at Cornell College for more than 20 years, said she tells students and families to pursue outside funding for college.

“When I talk to students and parents about their out-of-pocket cost here at Cornell, I’m always encouraging students to search for outside scholarships to help fund their college experience,” Perry said.

The cost of attending Cornell College and other private colleges increases because of necessary upgrades and increased salaries and health care costs at the institutions, Perry said. The costs increase over time.

“With facelifts to all the buildings and people wanting nicer athletic facilities and residence halls, all of those things cost money for colleges to be able to provide to students and I think colleges feel the need to do that to stay competitive,” Perry said.

Perry also said she encourages students to work while they’re in school, even if it’s just a small amount, because every dollar helps keep debt down.


Sam Riley, at Coe College in March 2019. Credit: Antonio Perez/for IowaWatch

Sam Riley, 21, of St. Ansgar, Iowa, and a junior in public relations and political science at Coe College in the just-ended school year, said he will owe more than $15,000 in student loans upon graduation.

“I didn’t borrow for books or anything, it’s all gone towards tuition and also room and board,” Riley said.


Room and board was a significant factor for students when needing to borrow loans. Nolan Boggess, 22, of Urbandale, Iowa, and graduating in theater at Grinnell College with $57,000 in debt, used loans to pay for room and board, in addition to tuition.

Boggess borrowed $17,000 in his first year at Grinnell, and as much as $10,000 went to room and board. Boggess moved and signed on for a less-expensive meal plan as a second-year student, but still needed to borrow a significant amount.

While loans have been helpful to students completing their degrees, the catch is, of course, loans have be paid back.

“You know I think that college debt is a growing problem, it’s a lot of responsibility for our generation to put on their shoulders,” said Mason Flynn, who will turn 23 later in May, and a St. Ambrose University student finishing his junior year. Flynn, from Dubuque, is majoring in sales.

“So many our age, a lot of people don’t have a big enough grasp to think long term, 10, 20, 30 years down the road when you have a lot of cash in your hand,” Flynn said.

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Jacqueline Campbell, 37, from Clear Lake, Iowa, received her undergraduate degree majoring in genetics and zoology, and a master’s degree in genetics from ISU, said she wanted to live the full college experience — a decision that cost her thousands of dollars in the long run. Campbell used student loans to live in Fredrickson Court, one of the most expensive on-campus housing options, and engaged in social activities often associated with college students.

“People said ‘let’s go on this cool weekend trip,’ I spend the extra money,” she said. “So, I did those things. I did exactly what the financial adviser in high school said ‘don’t do.’”

Campbell said she also used surplus money from loans when personal expenses became necessary.

Jacqueline Campbell Credit: K. Rambo/IowaWatch

She received advice while in high school but financial aid advisers and loan officers at ISU were willing to loan her money regardless of the need, she said. The expectation was to borrow because few can afford to pay tuition exclusively out of pocket or entirely with grants and scholarships, she said.

Campbell said it wasn’t until she began attending workshops on paying off debt provided by her church and planning carefully with her husband that she made significant progress.

It took her several years and sacrifice to pay back the more than $90,000 she borrowed as a student, she said. She finished paying off her loans in early 2019, saying she still drives an old car and wears clothes that are several years old.

“I’m trying to, right now, save up a little money to have a ‘I paid off my student loan debt’ party, because this is huge,” Campbell said.

“Ninety-thousand dollars is off my back.”


This story republished by the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Courier (Waterloo-Cedar Falls, IA), The Des Moines Register, The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA), The Iowa State Daily, Oskaloosa News, and Iowa Public Radio’s news website under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners.

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